So… this book is about how you tried to find all of your old vinyl records? The ones you sold or gave away twenty years ago?

It is, yeah.

Not just similar records, but the exact ones?

The exact ones.

You had a copy of, let’s say, the Pixie’s Doolittle, and you sold it in, I don’t know…

1996, at the Record Swap in Homewood, Illinois.

Okay. Wow. You seriously remember that?

I seriously do.

And today, a few decades later, you thought, “What the hell, let’s get it back…”

That’s right.

The exact record.

The one I sold to Record Swap.

A record store that went out of business in 1999.

Well sure. But that doesn’t mean the record’s gone. Unless it was melted down to ash in a warehouse fire, it still exists. Somebody owns it. Maybe the people who have it don’t even know about it. Maybe it’s in their basement, shoved into the bottom of a water-damaged Meijer’s wine box, or in a friend’s attic, in a stack of high school yearbooks and letters from dead relatives that nobody remembers are left up there. Maybe it’s gathering dust in some dark corner, waiting to be rediscovered.

You sound like an idiot.

I can accept that criticism.

So you’re well aware that you were on a fool’s quest?

Oh, absolutely. I knew that none of this was rational or even likely. Don Quixote had a better chance of winning the love of Dulcinea than I did of tracking down my old vinyl. But that didn’t make it any less important. And like Quixote fighting the windmills, I couldn’t tell you why the thing needed to be done; it just needed to be done.

Even if it was entirely impossible?

Well, not entirely.

Come on!

Look at something like Let It Be.

The Beatles?

No, the Replacements. I had a very specific, unique copy of Let it Be that I was trying to find.

What made it unique?

It had a scratch right in the middle of “Androgynous,” right when Westerberg is warbling that he “might be a father, but he sure ain’t a—” That’s how I first heard “Androgynous,” and I sort of got used to it. It wasn’t an annoyance, it was just an ingrained part of the melody. I’ve heard that particular scratch so many times, when I gave up the album and started listening to it on other formats,  I’d still instinctively reach out, ready to nudge the needle.

That’s it? That’s all you remember about the record?

Well, it also smells like weed.

Weed? As in marijuana?

And it was pretty pungent too. As a teenager, I used to hide my stash in there, because I thought I was being clever. As if my parents never would have thought to check a Replacements record.

Well of course. The Mats weren’t about weed.

They were about booze! You get what I’m saying.

I totally do. Anybody who goes looking for weed in a Replacements album just doesn’t understand the aesthetics of the band.

It’s so obvious. Anyway, even though it was the least obvious hiding spot, the record sleeve started to get a little stinky. Maybe there was something in the cardboard that strengthened and intensified the marijuana scent. You could smell it from three houses down. If I put the album in a suitcase and tried to get it past airport security, the dog-sniffing dogs wouldn’t even bother. They’d just be like, “Are you kidding me? This is an insult to my training. You guys can’t smell this shit? Do I really need to point it out?”

You think you’ll still be able to find this record based solely on how it smells?
I do. If it’s still out there, if it’s findable, I’ll smell before I see it. I don’t care if it’s buried underground like a cemetery under the Poltergeist house, those pot resin fumes will come bubbling to the surface like angry ghosts.

But that assumes you’ll be able to find it at all.

When I started crunching the numbers, doing some hard research on my odds of ever finding my weed-soiled copy of Let It Be, it was actually weirdly encouraging.
How so?

There were 150,000 CDs manufactured, and 51,000 cassettes. But the sole vinyl pressing of Let It Be was just 26,000 units. That’s a drop in the bucket compared to most iconic records. I don’t know how many vinyl copies of Michael Jackson’s Thriller were actually made, but I remember reading in Quincy Jones’ biography that it’d sold 120 million copies.

Holy shit.

Right? That’s a lot of goddamn records. The number of Let It Be records out there were roughly the population of caucasian males living in Hoboken, New Jersey. But the copies of Thriller equaled the entire population of Mexico. Think of it like that, and my task really wasn’t that improbable. I basically just had to knock on the door of every white dude in Hoboken, and eventually I’d find my record. That seemed a lot more doable than trying to find every last person in Mexico.
Let’s say, hypothetically, that you found your Let It Be, or any of the records you were looking for.
What difference would it really make? Why would it matter?
I don’t know. That’s a good question. In a way, that’s the whole point of this book. It’s not “Can I find these records?” It’s “Why do I need to find these records?”
And why did you?
In the beginning, i thought that it’d rewire my brain somehow. If I found these records that used to be so meaningful to me, that were hugely important when I was young and malleable and trying to carve out my own identity, It’d be like hitting the reset button.
And it did that?
Why would I tell you? So you don’t have to buy the book?
Jesus. Spoiler alert much?
Why’d you even sell your records in the first place?
It started because of CDs.
Oh, sure.

That’s why any of us gave up on vinyl, right? Because the technology changed. You don’t want to be the one who’s like, “Enjoy your jetpacks. I’ll stick with my Volvo.”

I totally understand.

My first CD was the Traveling Wilburys album. It was 1988. Late December. I’d gotten a CD boombox for Christmas from my parents, and I needed to christian it. I visited the mall, and only picked the Wilburys’ CD because that goddamn “Handle With Care” video had been hammered into my subconscious by MTV. Listening to the compact disc was breathtaking. I’d never heard music with so much clarity. And so fucking loud. This was clearly the future.

Nobody could blame you for thinking that.

Over the coming months, I began selling off my records. I was like the guy who gets kissed by a hot girl and decides he has to get rid of his porn collection immediately because “I won’t be needing this any more.” I’d been that guy—several times, in fact, back when getting rid of porn meant filling a pillow case full of VHS tapes and taking them to the nearest inconspicuous dumpster—but my vinyl wasn’t as easy to cast off.

Well, you don’t just want to get rid of everything at once, right? You don’t rip off the band-aid in one sadistic swipe, do you?

I guess not.

At first, I sold off just the unessentials. Nothing that would be missed. After the initial purge, I unloaded my albums more sporadically. Some were loaned out to friends and quickly forgotten. Some were left in my parents’ basement, or with relatives who already had too much old shit in their attics so what’s one more box. If I needed quick money for rent or weed—especially during the mid-90s, when I was just getting started in my journalism career, and my parents weren’t always enthusiastic about bankrolling their son’s unwillingness to find dependable employment—I could dip into my record stash for a dependable payday.

It never made you sad?
It was just a means to an end, not an irreparable act. If I ever had a change of heart, I could always buy another copy, probably in a cutout bin for a fraction of what I sold them for. Selling records in the late 20th century was a victimless crime. It never occurred to me that I might ever run out of records.
And how many did you sell?

The last time I counted, somewhere around 1987, I had in the ballpark of two thousand. The first purge of 300 barely left a dent. And from there, it was just a few records here, a few dozen there, as I needed them. I never made the conscious decision to deep-six my vinyl. It was always just, “Shit, I need beer money for the weekend. Oh wait, I still have that copy of the Stooges’ Raw Power!” It was like a low interest bearing savings account with guilt free withdrawals. I was never going to get rich on a bunch of old Elvis Costello records held together with scotch tape, or a Purple Rain that was so warped it sounded like the doves were crying because Prince was having a stroke. These weren’t investments, they were just antiques from my past that had small yet immediate monetary value.

Do you remember the last one?

The last one I sold? It was the Replacements’ Let It Be.
The one that smelled like weed!

That’s it. I sold it in 1999, the year I got married and my dad died. I was still embarrassingly poor, and needed money fast. During a visit to my parents, I found it in my old bedroom closet, the last of a once mighty collection, the one record I always managed to talk myself put of selling. But at this point, it seemed silly to hold onto it. I already had the CD, which was vastly superior (or so I thought at the time). The ragged and well-worn vinyl had long outlasted its usefulness, even as its secondary purpose, as a brilliant hiding spot for my weed.

Where’d you sell it? 

At the Record Swap in Homewood, the same record store where I bought it in 1986.
The circle of life!

Exactly. Except I was too freaked out to appreciate that. I was more worried that they’d buy a record that smelled so pungently of marijuana. As it turned out, that wasn’t a problem. The kid behind the counter, who must have been at least ten years my junior, with thick sideburns and a Sonic Youth tattoo on his forearm, offered me $10 for it. Which was kinda amazing, since I only paid $4 for it in 1985. Reselling old records, especially records that could be used as evidence in drug convictions, rarely reap 60% profits.

Did he just not notice?

More than likely, he was just being nice, We had talked at length about Paul Westerberg’s latest solo effort, Suicaine Gratifaction, which we both agreed was fucking awful. Men of any age, but especially those between 20 and 29 who own at least one Misfits skull shirt—which we all buy and wear regardless of whether we can stomach the Misfits—derive great pleasure from discussing how punk music isn’t as punk as it used to be. We’re like New Yorkers talking about Times Square in the 80s. Except the pre-Giuliani “golden age” is always shifting. It’s never a concrete time frame. It’s ten years ago from the conversation you’re currently having. In 1999, we were pining for the era of Hüsker Dü and Black Flag and pre-electronica U2 and when Elvis Costello was still about snotty rebellion and not making Austin Powers soundtracks with Burt Bacharach.In another ten years, we’d be talking about OK Computer and Neutral Milk Hotel and Yo La Tengo like we knew all along we’d been living in a golden age, not like it was today.

Are you sure you actually need these records back?
What do you mean?
Maybe you’re just being nostalgic? Maybe the records don’t have any real meaning, you’re just growing old and feeling wistful about all the shit you threw away.
I’ve considered that. But it’s not like I wanted my floppy disks back. I wasn’t on a mission to find old AOL sign-up CDs, or those Nintendo cartridges that could be “fixed” by blowing on them, or bottles of Wite-Out to fix all the spelling errors made while writing “electronic”-mails on my Royal RT7700 electric typewriter.
Okay, fair point.
This isn’t like what happened in 2011, when Pearl Jam’s Ten was twenty years old, and I spent an entire weekend trying to decide whether to buy the Deluxe or Super Deluxe re-release editions.
Wait, what?

I was 22 and fresh out of college when the original album came out, so the anniversary was kind of a big deal for me. Not because I especially liked Ten, but because being reminded that it was released half my life ago served as a grim reminder that I’m going to die someday, probably sooner than I’d prefer. It was like a pop culture abacus. Every time a beloved album or TV show or movie hits a milestone anniversary, we slide another bead across the wire, marking the passage of time between when we were young and how much closer we are to the end.

Come on!

That’s the most morbid thing I’ve ever heard.
Is it? I didn’t drop $100 on any of the limited-edition anniversary re-releases. The only reason to listen to an album like Ten in 2011 is to recapture what it felt like to be alive in 1991. And you’re sure as fuck not going to do that by listening to a remastered and remixed version. I was mildly curious to hear early mixes of “Even Flow” and outtakes like “2,000 Mile Blues.” But just barely. I wasn’t writing a college thesis on the making of Ten, I just wanted to remember what it was like to be 22, when I had little personal responsibility other than earning enough money to buy weed and pay rent and find something cool to listen to while smoking weed.
And how do you do that?
You do it like you did it in 1991. I listened to Ten on CD, on a Panasonic boombox. So, that experience needed to be recreated.

What the fuck?

I tracked down a Panasonic boombox for the disconcertingly affordable price of $20. (This was legitimately upsetting. A boombox used to be something you had to save for. Have boomboxes become the inner-city hookers of music, ready to give a handjob to anybody with a double sawbuck?) Finding a copy of Ten on CD was just a matter of searching eBay and deciding whether I wanted the $9.99 used version or the $1.99 “ultra-used” version, whose previous owner had evidently used the disc as either a cocktail coaster or doorstop (and possibly both). I opted for the latter, for reasons that probably wouldn’t make sense to those of you who don’t remember life before iPods. There was a time, long before MP3s, when you could judge how much a piece of music was loved by how badly the jewel case was chipped.

You can’t just close your eyes and transport yourself back to 1991?

Well no, of course not. Music needs context, and the context that makes every album, every song, every note feel so uniquely personal isn’t always easy to reproduce. Around the time I was regularly listening to Ten, a girl named Susan broke my heart. I remember leaving her apartment in Chicago after she told me it was over—she lived on Webster Street in the Lincoln Park neighborhood—and walking to the el station in the rain, listening to Ten on my Walkman. A song like “Alive” takes on a special significance when the girl you’ve been dating for three months and kinda-sorta thought you were in love with decides she doesn’t want to have sex with you anymore. There’s nothing quite like fantasies of being an orphan with rage issues to give your self-pity some dramatic gravitas.

So what’d you do?

I tried calling Susan during that summer of Ten sentimentality, just to see if hearing her voice again would be enough to bring me back to that place, to make my stomach clench and my throat dry up and my hands grow restless for a cigarette to take the edge off. I wanted her to say something unintentionally cruel, something that could emotionally devastate a 22-year-old guy in a way that only Eddie Vedder’s wounded baritone could heal.

Did it work?

No such luck. As “Even Flow” raged softly in the background, like a Musak elevator soundtrack, we talked about how we’d both become parents in the last year, and how much we enjoyed seeing photos of each other’s kids on Facebook.My attempts at forced Ten nostalgia were a very different thing than trying to find my old records. That was just about wanting to feel young again, and calling an ex-girlfriend to feel the endorphin-rush of old rejection. But this—this quest for records that never should have been lost—this was something entirely more complex, with deeper emotional resonance. Yes, one of the records I needed to find just so happened to have an ex-girlfriend’s phone number scrawled onto it.

Which one?
Bon Jovi’s Slippery When Wet.
You liked that album?
No. Not even slightly. It’s a long story.
Well explain it.

It’s all in the book. But this wasn’t about her. The phone number was incidental.

What was it about then?

The difference between finding my old records and buying an old record because of nostalgia is like the difference between dating somebody who kinda reminds you of your mom because you still have mommy issues, and showing up at your mom’s house with a bottle of whiskey and not leaving till you work that shit out. It’s the difference between flirting with ex on Facebook by liking all of her status updates and being a little too interested in her photos, and driving out to her house and standing on the lawn and singing Smiths songs at her bedroom window until she agrees to climb out and run away with you.
Okay, I understand now.
Do you?
I think so. But just to be sure, do you want to get drunk and listen to old records and talk about who we were and what we wanted to become and what we turned out to be?
I’m totally going to read your book now.
If that’s the only thing you got from this conversation, I feel like it was worth it.